An acquaintance of mine recently came back from a medical mission in the Dominican Republic. What caught his eye and what he wished to impress upon me was the abundance of poverty and squalor. “But how are the people?” I asked.
“Surprisingly, they seem pretty happy,” he said. “But they wouldn’t be so happy if they knew of all the things they didn’t have.” Funny that this comment was coming from a man who drinks himself into oblivion at least twice a week to escape his loveless marriage and angry clients.
I’m not going set out to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness. That argument has been made and pounded into our brains through literature, television, movies, and our own anecdotal experiences. What I am curious about is why, when we live in such an advantaged society, we feel such discontent and a need to escape. This need and revolt against the self has less to do with class than it has to do with being American.
You could say escape is part of who we are. Most of us descend from people who fled their homelands for a better life in America. When confronted with problems, like Huck Finn, our first instinct is to get away. In fact, much of our culture is about getting away: going away to college, moving out after graduation, taking that transfer for the better job. But whereas it once was external forces that prompted us into action, now we are escaping from ourselves.
We find escape from the confines of our marriages through affairs, escape from the stress of our jobs or joblessness through drugs and alcohol, escape from mundane drudgery through our virtual lives, escape from obligation through resignation. We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that we can tolerate anything because relief has always been so instantly accessible. Too bad relief is only temporary.
What the enlightenment taught us was an ability to look inward for strength, but this reliance on looking within has made us culturally narcissistic. Consider some of the clinical characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder:
-The individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance
-The individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success
-The individual believes he or she is special and unique
-The individual requires excessive admiration
-The individual has a sense of entitlement
-The individual is interpersonally exploitive
-The individual lacks empathy
-The individual believes that others are envious of him or her
-The individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Not only does this characterize our brand of patriotism where national interest is front-center, but also our own practice of directing our life’s purpose towards serving the self. Is that how we define success? By the fruit of our careers? By sexual fulfillment? By attaining enviable status within our communities? It’s our own version of the Greek areté, or all-around excellence. Unfortunately, we are poor judges of the things that make us happy. We become paralyzed by the duality of the mind, and have a tough time reconciling our narcissistic tendencies with our Christian virtues of humility, empathy, and charity. Steinbeck nailed it on the head through his character Doc in Cannery Row.
“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
Just as a nation divided against itself cannot stand, an individual divided against himself cannot stand either. We teeter on the brink of insanity, balancing opposite extremes. The political polarization in our country actually reflects quite accurately the “schism of the soul” we are experiencing as individuals.
Generally speaking, we are a nation governed by a conservative conscience that is just an annoying voice set against our liberal vices. We are outraged at the split-second sight of a female nipple on network television, yet we are the world’s biggest consumer of porn. We condemn affairs and premarital sex but have our own. We detest drunk drivers yet we frequently drink and drive. We are walking contradictions. It’s no wonder we’d want to get away from ourselves.
It’s like we live each day with so much regret for who we are and the things we have failed to do or the things we have done. We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that happiness is one wish, one dollar, or one lover away. What if instead of looking forward to what we hope could be, we looked around and reflected on what we have? During my travels of through South America, while I did see a lot of poverty, I also found a lot of happy people. It was refreshing. The one thing they had in common was a tie to each other. Family. Community. In our Houdini nation of escape artists, we are becoming lonelier. In the end, isn’t that what we fear most? In the end, will we realize, as Christian told Jack in the final episode of Lost, that “the most…important part of your life, was the time that you spent with these people…You needed all of them, and they needed you.”